The Smithsonian has one. Good Housekeeping and Redbook, too. It’s the back page article, a one-page piece that adds a touch of humor, opinion or information before the final close of a magazine’s cover.
Back page articles provide excellent break-in opportunities for writers eager to place their work in major markets. Written with a slant towards essay or opinion, these last words are often the first published pieces for freelancers not (yet) listed on the magazine’s masthead.
Like “shorts”, which are mostly found in front, back-page pieces can be an overlooked opportunity to get published. The Smithsonian’s appropriately titled Back Page is humor with a genial tone according to its guidelines, a funny what-happened- to-me essay that relates to the writer’s own experiences. Good Housekeeping’s Blessings is another true experience story complete with the realization there was a blessing tied up in the event. Redbook’s Red Letter Day details a day where everything comes together to give the writer new insight. The Sun (literary journal) prints Sunbeams: readers’ written quotations grouped with more famous witticisms. These are but a few of the back-of-the-book publishing opportunities to be found. And unlike shorts, you get more words to express yourself: up to 800 on average.
Here are some tips to help you successfully navigate through the back page and into that major market.
KEEP THE THEME ALIVE
Sometimes a back page topic seems to veer off the publication’s theme, but at second glance you’ll see it’s still connected to their core philosophy. Better Homes and Gardens, known for decorating tips and show-how pictures, printed “Snow Day,” a nostalgic essay tucked in back about the good old days when being snow bound was an opportunity for family fun. The BH and G profile in Writer’s Market might not mention that an essay on being stuck at home due to inclement weather would be acceptable to a magazine with headlines boasting the latest in garden trends, but the concept of home and hearth is important to Better Homes. So the story was still in sync with their theme.
Research and read what your favorite markets are printing in back, then make a list of topics you might contribute. One of the best ways to find a magazine’s theme and target audience is through their ads. Are the advertisements parading new cars and other products of affluence? Are they promoting techno gadgets or do-it-yourself aids? I once landed an anecdotal article about my 80-year-old mother’s decision not to drive-and the benefits thereof-in the back pages of a publication serving the senior community. Their ads ran heavy on healthy lifestyle products and alternate modes of travel (shuttle services, for example) making my article a seamless addition to their content. Had I offered this same piece to Car & Driver I might not have been so lucky.
MAKE A GUEST APPEARANCE
You may notice a back page piece is actually a recurring column that not only sticks to a theme but stays on topic, such as Writer’s Digest’s Postscript (authors’ accounts of life after publication).
If that’s the case, check the byline to see if the magazine uses a rotation of contributing writers. Next, study the style, format and, most importantly, the intent of the column. Then write a piece to add to the ongoing conversation. Balance your witty writing style with their editorial needs to keep the column on point; structure the length and format to fit, then send a sample column to the appropriate editor. Check your favorite market directory to see what your target market is looking for in columns open to freelancers, and offer to be their guest.
Newspapers have many back pages to fill and are often dependant on contributors to add to the hundreds of articles run daily. The next time you’re reading your morning newspaper with that essential cup of tea, skip the front page news and flip towards the back. There you’ll find various “lifestyle” columns and op/ed pages that are filled with copy provided by non-staffers. As with magazines, read to gain a sense of style and tone; note what the section editor has selected for publishing.
Newspapers have editors assigned by section but each editor may have a slightly different mailing address. If the information isn’t listed, call to find out which editor handles submissions for your selected section. Be prepared to describe your idea or essay if you’re fortunate enough to be asked, “What’s the article about?” Many articles have been sold with just a minute’s investment of a single phone call.
Another good thing: Newspaper websites often provide a wealth of content information. So with Internet access you’re not limited to your neighborhood papers, although those are a good place to begin. One of my articles appeared in back of a regional newspaper covering areas in and around Springfield, Missouri while my tea and I remained in Southern California.
WRITE AND GO SEEK
While back page articles offer good publishing opportunities, they’re often a hidden market just by their nature. There’s rarely a cover headline to announce their presence, nor will there be much reference to them in market directories beyond “accepts personal essays” or “columns open to freelancers.” While these hints are helpful to gauge a publication’s style, tone and audience, the critical details are best discovered by having the magazine in hand.
To cut costs, take advantage of the stacks of magazines available in your library or doctor’s office. Often a medical office will let you take the magazine if you ask. Review the magazine’s masthead to gather editors’ names.
I subscribe to four magazines. After studying and reading the latest issue of each, I exchange them for other magazines on display at my local hair salon – with their permission, of course. Many magazines offer free issues if you’re willing to consider subscribing. However, you can get your hands on one, turn to the back and seek what treasures ye can find. This is one time you will want to read the last page first.
PITCH, PITCH, PITCH
Once you’ve studied the back pages, analyze the magazine’s theme and readership. Collect several sample articles, file them with the magazine’s guidelines and study them for format, tone, and category (humor, op/ed, anecdotal, informative). Now you’re ready to target the publication with your own idea and polish your prose for public viewing.
When ready to make your pitch, you can do the usual query letter, but since your submission is only one page, send the complete manuscript with a catchy cover letter instead. Mention in the letter (keep it brief!) that you’ve noticed their publication often adds a personal essay or opinion piece and you think your article would fit right in. You might also suggest that your article would be in line with a future topic you’ve seen on their editorial calendar – one of the best resources, by the way, to gauge editorial needs. (Editorial calendars can often be found on a publication’s website. Check out the “media contact” page.)
Often a market’s guidelines say no unsolicited manuscript submissions but I’ve yet to be arrested for it and editors may read these anyway. Who knows? She might even ask you to develop the idea into something a little more feature-sized. You just want your foot in the door – never mind it’s the door in back.
Once published, a back-page item can become front-page news in your clips file. You’ll be able to say “I’ve written for (mega magazine)” or “I’ve been published in (lofty literary journal).” Add that credit proudly to your website and make color copies for your clips pile. Your published one-pager is a valuable credit, and if anyone says, “It’s all the way in back, I nearly missed it!” just say, “Of course it is. They saved the best for last.”
BACK PAGE BEST BETS
Markets use their back pages in a variety of ways but many make room for essays and one-page articles on a regular basis. Check out these other back-of-the-book sections to find first-rate publishing opportunities:
Smithsonian: “Back Page” – Essays with a humorous tone
Good Housekeeping: “Blessings” – Essays of a person or an event that proved to be a blessing
Redbook: Red Letter Day – Essays on a day of revelation
The Sun: “Readers Write” – Essays on a topic suggested by The Sun, and “Sunbeams” – readers’ quotations
Family Circle: “Full Circle” – Essays centered on family life
Barbara Neal Varma is an award-winning writer who has written for Image, ByLine, Savvy Women.com, Kaleidoscope, and various other magazines and literary journals. Her essays have won awards from Writer’s Digest, the National Writers Association and Anthology magazine.